Amid calls for transparency, state board that oversees jails withholds 100+ records on Richmond Jail

Posted at 5:46 PM, Jan 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-17 17:46:35-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- As inmates, grieving families, city officials and advocates have escalated concerns about safety conditions inside the Richmond City Jail, the state entity responsible for overseeing local jails has provided limited information about its response.

The Richmond City Justice Center has reported four inmate deaths in less than a year and three in the past three months. Those incidents combined with a significant staffing shortage, 'difficulty' maintaining oversight of the facility, and reported assaults on staff led some Richmond councilmembers to ask for an investigation into the jail from the Board of Local and Regional Jails.

When CBS 6 asked the board's executive director Ryan McCord how the board would respond to a formal request to investigate the jail in December, McCord said the board had "no comment."

CBS 6 then submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for communication records among the board related to the Richmond Jail.

However, McCord said the board withheld about 125 records, citing two codes that exclude public agencies from mandatory disclosure. One exemption applies to documents containing information about imprisoned people. McCord cited another exemption that allows certain public bodies, such as the Governor's Office, General Assembly, and Department of Corrections, to withhold records. CBS 6 asked which specific public body the cited exemption applies to and awaits a response.

Among what the board's FOIA response did include were the most recent inspection and audit reports of the Richmond Jail. State inspectors gave the jail a perfect score on both.

An inspection from September 2022 showed the jail was fully compliant with all of the state's life, health, and safety standards.

And a more in-depth audit, which takes place every three years, showed the jail was fully compliant with standards in April 2021. The auditor, Tawana Ferguson, noted that the 10 staff members she interviewed were professional and knowledgeable of their responsibilities. No staff members indicated significant problems with the facility and were reported by Ferguson to "feel empowered by the sheriff." Of the 12 inmates interviewed, Ferguson said none of them raised concerns.

Since both reports were issued, many concerns have gone public. Deputy vacancies have grown to about 170, which is half of the jail's total sworn positions. Several deputies have anonymously voiced safety fears due to assaults on staff members. Inmates have called the Problem Solvers from inside the jail claiming that they've been attacked. And family members of inmates who died in the jail spoke out to demand answers.

Of the four inmate deaths in the past year, the causes of death are still pending for three of them. One was confirmed to be drug-related.

For comparison, here are the number of inmate deaths reported by other jails in 2022:

  • Chesterfield Jail: 0
  • Henrico Jail West: 3
  • Henrico Jail East: 0
  • Norfolk Jail: 1

"We have been monitoring the situation there in the Richmond City Jail, and we are certainly concerned about people dying while they're incarcerated. People that are incarcerated deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and they deserve to get the medical care that they need," said Shawn Weneta, a policy analyst with the ACLU of Virginia.

And it's not just Richmond. Weneta said the ACLU remains concerned about drug overdoses and deaths from unknown causes across the whole state. In light of those issues, he hopes the Board of Local and Regional Jails will "bolster" its oversight efforts.

“We believe that the Board of Local and Regional Jails should bring some more transparency, not just to the Richmond City Jail, but all jails across the Commonwealth," Weneta said.

Weneta said while some lawmakers have pushed for and introduced legislation for independent oversight of the Department of Corrections, additional oversight would not apply to the board, something he'd like to see in the future.

"As far as the ACLU is concerned, we would like to see independent oversight, not just for the Department of Corrections, but of the Local and Regional Jails in Virginia as well," Weneta said.

He noted the board has traditionally been resistant to outside oversight.

The board is set to hold its monthly public meeting on Wednesday at noon at the Department of Corrections headquarters in Richmond.

CBS 6 has sent several follow-up questions to McCord's FOIA response and continues to await a response. A spokesperson for Governor Youngkin's Office said last week that Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Bob Mosier is monitoring the situation at the city jail and engaging with McCord on how to follow up.